Is Truth Stranger Than Fiction? It might be if you read about the talented Edgar Laplante
It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction. Nowhere is the validity of this tired old adage demonstrated more emphatically than in the adventures of the once world famous yet now little-known Jazz Age singing star, Edgar Laplante (1888-1944). If some young writer incorporated him into one of those voguish novels fictionalizing the lives of historical figures, its readers would no doubt complain that Laplante’s adventures were too far-fetched to be credible.
Born into an impoverished French-Canadian family, which moved from Quebec to the industrial part of Rhode Island, he demonstrated a precocious talent as a conman. But he was no ordinary grifter. Right from his days as a 14-year-old scam artist, what motivated his trickery wasn’t greed. It was, instead, his craving for praise—a craving that’s propelled many a showbiz career. Being a handsome, charismatic, and exceptionally gifted singer, Laplante was well-equipped to satisfy that need. Though he become a vaudeville star of sufficient magnitude to top the bill in huge theaters, he wanted much more than just a few rounds of applause and his name on the marquee. He wanted a scale and depth of admiration that vaudeville stardom could never bring him.
In the fall of 1917, he found a way of getting what he wanted. For that, he drew on his experiences as a ballyhoo man at a Coney Island amusement park, where he’d been hired to pose as a Native American chief. And so he reinvented himself as Chief White Elk, fictitious leader of the Canadian Cherokee. Just in case his title and newly acquired costume of moccasins, beaded buckskins, and a feathered headdress weren’t impressive enough, he styled himself as a war hero, and onetime member of Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s crack gridiron team, renowned for defeating Harvard—a result widely regarded at that time as college football’s biggest upset.
Such a daring act of fraud could only succeed thanks to the patchiness of early twentieth-century America’s communication system, no television or national news media being available to challenge his lies. Of course, Laplante wasn’t the first person of white European origin to pass himself off as a Native American. Other famous members of what has since been branded “the tribe of Wannabe” include the environmentalist Gray Owl (1888-1938), who was, in truth, an Englishman. Next to the flamboyant, coke-snorting, whisky-marinated, bisexual, multi-talented Mr Laplante, however, these other racial impostors led mundane lives.
The brief time he spent in Salt Lake City during the spring of 1918 typifies the glorious absurdity of his itinerant existence. Within just a few days of stepping off the train, he’d not only charmed a genuine Native American woman into agreeing to marry him, but also sufficiently impressed the Governor of Utah to arrange for the ceremony to be conducted on the steps of the State Capitol. In front of a crowd of 5,000, probably including the Marx Brothers, Laplante and his fiancée were hitched. Yet this was only the prelude to a six and a half year sequence of increasingly outlandish escapades. These involved him campaigning for Native American rights, dabbling in the world of silent movies, and traveling to Britain for an audience with King George V, his supposed objective being to plead for better educational opportunities for Cherokee youth. While Laplante was in Europe, he contracted a bigamous marriage to an English switchboard operator, worked in the decadent Parisian cabaret scene, rubbed elbows with the city’s artistic elite, and spent time on the French Riviera, where he captivated a fabulously rich Austrian countess, who wound up bankrolling what was billed as his royal tour of Italy. In the course of that, he became a darling of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, which showered him with honorary awards. Wherever he went, he attracted big crowds and dispensed wads of Italian currency. Over little more than a single summer, he gave away the equivalent of as much as $58.9 million in 2018 money. The countesses’ wealth also paid for him to host lavish parties, one of which involved him riding into a hotel lounge on horseback while wearing his feathered headdress and the rest of his outfit.
Even the greatest novelists would struggle to transpose him into plausible fiction, yet facets of his beguilingly strange personality are mirrored by two celebrated literary characters—Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. Like the psychopathically manipulative anti-hero of The Talented Mr Ripley, Laplante was driven by a longing to inhabit a life remote from the life into which he’d been born. His desire to reinvent himself had its roots, though, in a Gatsby-esque form of romantic yearning. It’s this that adds a tragic frisson to the otherwise comic adventures portrayed in my new nonfiction book, King Con. I just hope the book proves as enjoyable to read as it was to research and write.
King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor (Crown) is U.K.-based Paul Willetts’s U.S. debut. He has previously published four nonfiction titles in his home country, all of which have attracted critical praise and a string of high-profile admirers, including the movie director Edgar Wright as well as the actor and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steve Coogan. Members Only, Paul’s third book, was adapted into a movie starring Coogan. For further information about Paul and his work, please visit www.paulwilletts.com.